2022: Year In Review

Marcia and I will be heading to Spain (our first international trip since COVID) a couple of days after Christmas, so today seems like a good point to sit and settle up the scores for 2022 here at my website, as I normally do at this time each year, plus or minus a few days. Unless I get ambitious, or someone I care about deeply passes away soon, this will likely be the final post of the year, for better and/or for worse.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2020, I surprised myself by publishing 147 posts, the most I’d done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did COVID-driven cancellations of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. I followed that high-water mark with another 120 posts in 2021. Even with that smaller number of entries, the overall site readership trend remained positive, as I think the coronablogus effect was still in full play throughout that year. But I did seem to hit a wall at the end of 2021, tiring of some of my then-ongoing features, and noting in January of this year that I might be w(h)ithering a bit hereabouts. That did indeed prove to be the case, as this post is number 54 for the year, more than a 50% reduction in my recent annual output. But, thankfully, readership numbers didn’t decline anywhere near that level, so my per-post hits were actually higher than ever, per the chart below. I’ve operated this site and domain since 1995, but prior to 2015, I split my writing between a variety of sites with a variety of hosts, so there’s no easily meaningful visual comparison to make from those times. (Actual numbers are  edited out, as it’s tacky to share them, and the trend line is what matters to me; the light-blue pipes are total unique page visits, the dark-blue pipes are total unique visitors):

As I report each year, here are the baker’s dozen most-read articles among the new posts here over the past twelve months. So if you’re new-ish to my site, or just finding it via this post, then these are the things that readers thought were the best in the vote-by-numbers, and therefore might be the best things to explore further. There’s a bit of everything in the mix, tone-wise, which I suppose is just fine and dandy:

And then here are the baker’s dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2022, shared to the same recommended pointing reason. It always fascinates me which of the 1,200+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on the earliest version of this website. (Note that I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). “The Worst Rock Band Ever” tops the leader board, as it does most every year. And once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke, and also, once again, it continues to befuddle me why my 1999 interview with relatively-obscure guitarist Dave Boquist appears on this “most-read” chart almost every year, receiving far more hits, continually, than my many other interviews with many other far more famous artists. Go figger . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2022

TRAVEL:

We will see 2022 off, God willing and the creek don’t rise, in the Puerto del Sol, Madrid, Spain. We leave on Tuesday, but I’ve gone ahead and penned that trip onto my annual travel map, below. While this isn’t as heavy a travel load as we once did, it’s certainly nice to see it being populated with more red lines than were possible during peak COVID years:

RECORDINGS:

See these two earlier posts:

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2022

FILM AND TELEVISION:

See these three earlier posts:

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward into 2023, with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. I don’t know whether I’ll continue to churn out the piffle and tripe at recent levels, or do more, or so less, or what direction your collective engagement with this site will take. (One of the nice things about doing this as a labor of love, and not a labor of commerce, is that the thought of less content and/or less traffic in the year ahead does not cause me any agita). But regardless of how all of those things turn out, I will forever be grateful to those of you who care enough to continue supporting my creative endeavors, right here and right now, and I wish all of you and all of yours the very best over the days and months and years to come!

P.S. As a final tease on the final post of the year, here’s one thing that I know 2023 will be bringing, if you’d like to stake your claim to a copy:

Side By Side in Eternity: The Lives Behind Adjacent American Military Graves

Hey Oscar . . .

I posted my Best Films of 2022 list a couple of week back, here, and have been updating it as I’ve whittled down my “need to see” list. When I posted it, I also included some Oscar-linked lists based on the categories that I care the most about. I’ve been updating that list as well, but it’s long enough that it felt like it might need its own post. Which you’re now reading.

I don’t know why I still care about the Oscars, but I do. That show’s broadcast and the Super Bowl are about the only two “must-see TV” events for me anymore. The Tony’s were never my bag, as my exposure to Broadway-level theater is minimal. Since I’ve not been much of a television watcher until COVID times, as discussed here, I’ve also not been much engaged with the Emmy’s. And in the realm of my greatest cultural love, music, the Grammy’s have long been a negligible-to-laughable misguided embarrassment in my mind, much as are nominations to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

But the Oscars still seem to matter to me, as does the Cannes Film Festival, despite the myriad problematic aspects of both of those events and the organizations that produce them. Call me blinkered or blinded or Kool Aid-poisoned or whatever, but I am happy to see the films I love win awards at those venues, and annoyed when truly worthy films are shunned. There’s still some emotional and intellectual investment, at bottom line, though I cannot explain why in any particularly lucid fashion.

That said, if I were allowed to be Film Emperor for a Day and to be able to prescribe the nominees for the 2023 Oscars, here’s what I’d pick among the major (to me) categories. I wish that the Academy did not allow up to ten best film nominees each year, but since they do, I’ll go along with that rubric and fill that bucket.

Best Film:

  • Aftersun
  • The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
  • Clara Sola
  • Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • The Good Boss
  • Official Competition
  • The Outfit
  • Saloum
  • Triangle of Sadness

Best Director:

  • Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, Official Competition
  • Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All At Once
  • Alejandro González Iñárritu, Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
  • Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, Clara Sola
  • Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness

Best Actor:

  • Antonio Banderas, Official Competition
  • Javier Bardem, The Good Boss
  • Austin Butler, Elvis
  • Mark Rylance, The Outfit
  • Ralph Fiennes, The Menu

Best Actress:

  • Penélope Cruz, Official Competition
  • Rebecca Hall, Resurrection
  • Regina Hall, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul
  • Emily Skeggs, Dinner in America
  • Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Mentor Ba, Saloum
  • Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Tom Hanks, Elvis
  • Woody Harrelson, Triangle of Sadness
  • Pedro Pascal, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Hong Chau, The Menu
  • Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • Dolly De Leon, Triangle of Sadness
  • Janelle Monae, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story

Best Animated Feature:

  • Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
  • Beavis and Butthead Do The Universe
  • Mad God
  • Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
  • Minions: The Rise of Gru

Best International Feature:

  • Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
  • The Good Boss
  • Official Competition
  • Saloum
  • The Tale of King Crab

Best Cinematography:

  • Darius Khondji, Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
  • Sophie Winqvist, Clara Sola
  • Larkin Seiple, Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Thirteen Lives
  • Fredrik Wenzel, Triangle of Sadness

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All At Once
  • Jordan Peele, Nope
  • Mariano Cohn, Andrés Duprat and Gastón Duprat, Official Competition
  • Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • K.D. Dávila, Emergency
  • Rian Johnson, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
  • Simon Farnaby, The Phantom of the Open
  • Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, The Tale of King Crab
  • Emma Donoghue, Sebastián Lelio and Alice Birch, The Wonder

The yacht sequence in “Triangle of Sadness” was one of the most incredible and horrifying acts of film-making I can recall in recent years. Give those folks some Oscars!

Best Television of 2022

As I sit here at my computer this morning, hacking and sniffling through day four of my current COVID bout, it seems like a good time and place to make another list because, hey, that’s how I roll at this time each year, sick or well. So shall we reflect together, y’all and I, on what we watched on the idiot box this year? Let’s give it a go, I say. Or maybe that’s the drugs talking . . .

I must point out up front that this is one year-end list that I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have meaningfully prepared prior to the Anno Virum. In the ’60s and ’70s, I assume I was a fairly typical television-watching kid/teen from a fairly typical television-watching family, not much outside the mainstream, keeping reasonably well abreast of and casually consuming then-popular shows, either in real time or in syndication, or both. But some time in the very early 1980s, I generally stopped watching broadcast or cable television shows, and that remained my norm pretty much right up until 2020, with only a few notable exceptions.

I was down with Twin Peaks and Seinfeld in the ’90s, yeah. And I watched Daria and Strangers With Candy in their entireties. Breaking Bad caught and held my attention, though Better Call Saul did not. A few other relatively short-lived comedies worked for me, most notably My Name Is Earl, Malcolm in the Middle, Beavis and Butthead, In Living Color, Flight of the Conchords, and Schitts Creek. But beyond that, I can’t recall having many “must watch” shows from about 1980 to about 2020, when the rest of the world was losing its collective mind over things like The Sopranos and The Wire and Lost and Mad Men and Six Feet Under and The X Files and 30 Rock and The West Wing and Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones and on and on and on.

Marcia and Katelin watched a lot of those shows (along with some reality TV stuff), but during their TV time, I’d typically be at my computer, writing, or listening to music, or mucking about in various online communities, or doing volunteer/board stuff. We were always big on movie rentals, in both pre-streaming days and in the modern paradigm, and I would watch films on television regularly, and sports, but just not TV shows. Then, of course, the plague arrived, bringing lockdowns and social distancing in its wake, and Marcia and I adjusted our home-life schedules accordingly to have more together-time, including watching television shows that I would likely have skipped in pre-isolation days.

While the most-restrictive periods of our COVID era have mostly passed (this week’s personal sickness and isolation notwithstanding), we’ve kept going with our television watching together, such that feel like I’ve actually experienced enough to have valid opinions on what moved me most in 2022. I didn’t keep track in real time of what I was watching, the way I do with music, and books, and films, but looking at a few online resources, I think I watched at least one full season of 27 different shows this year. I know we sampled and bailed on probably a dozen others beyond that.

I note that we’ve just begun the as-yet-incomplete third season of South Side, which I adore, so that will most likely get added to my top of the pile list once it runs its course. I also note that I’m not including the great Yellowjackets, because most of its debut season premiered and aired in 2021, though we did get a few episodes last January. As a preamble to my Top Ten of 2022 list, here’s my honorable mentions list of ten shows that engaged me enough to make me keep watching, and which I enjoyed well enough, but not to a point that makes me want to laud them as the best of the best of anything:

  • 1899 (Season One)
  • Beavis and Butthead (Season Nine)
  • Disenchantment (Season Four)
  • Los Espookys (Season Two)
  • Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Season One)
  • The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power (Season One)
  • Only Murders in the Building (Season Two)
  • Resident Alien (Season Two)
  • Rick and Morty (Seasons Five and Six)
  • Undone (Season Two)

And then here are the ten best serial things I watched in 2022, counting down toward what I deem to be the very best the year offered:

#10. The English (Season One): This one had some structural flaws (too episodic in its first installments, with some confusing relationships between cast members), but once its pieces finally clicked about four episodes in, the climax and denouement were worth the bumpy early ride. Outstanding performances in the lead roles by Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer, with some fun guest stars popping up in various episodes as well.

#9. Shoresy (Season One): Shoresy (the character) was a one-note comedic part in the hilarious Canadian comedy Letterkenny, so when a spin-off series about him was announced, I was skeptical that it could work. But, happily enough, it did, adding some back-story depth to a caricature of a character, putting together a fun new ensemble cast, and creating a series story arc that actually made you care how it turned out.

#8. Solar Opposites (Season Three): Justin Roiland’s Solar Opposites looks, sounds, and feels a lot like its creator’s other great show, Rick and Morty. I like both of them a lot, but this year Solar Opposites seemed to edge ahead of its older sibling in terms of lasting quality entertainment value, in large part because of the increased number of episodes prominently featuring modern TV’s greatest supporting character: The Pupa.

#7. The Tourist (Season One): As I was working on this list, I noted that The Tourist had been renewed for a second season. Enhhh . . . I’m not feeling that, and I think they should have left this alone as a limited-release series, given how incredibly the first block of episodes ended, and how crazy the ride to get there was. Dark, dark, and dark throughout, even though you’ll find yourself giggling every now and again, nervously.

#6. What We Do In the Shadows (Season Four): As with Shoresy, I was highly skeptical that this series, based on a film that I love, could have had lasting entertainment value. And, as with Shoresy again, I was wrong. The core ensemble cast here makes the whole thing work brilliantly, and regular on-screen or behind-the-scenes guest involvement from the original film’s Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement are always welcome.

#5. Our Flag Means Death (Season One): Taika Waititi on the list again with a fabulously over-the-top and outre pirate serial based on the true stories of Stede Bonnet, once known as “The Gentleman Pirate,” and Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard. Yeah, all the expected pirate tropes are here, but beyond that, well, to its great credit, it explicitly goes places that a century’s worth of sweaty sailors at sea sagas have typically ignored.

#4. Somebody Somewhere (Season One): I’m not sure why we started this one, as it lacks the usual links or tags or stars or topics or buzz that normally catch my attention. But, boy, I sure am glad I tuned in, as this was the most wonderful, laugh-out-loud, cry-in-your-beer, life-affirming, tragicomedy of errors I’ve seen in some time, with a great cast bringing a vibrant collection of quirky characters to life, full of heart and soul.

#3. Reservation Dogs (Season Two): It’s a Taiki Waititi hat trick in my top ten, this time with the great Kiwi writer-director-actor co-creating an Indigenous American dramedy with Seminole-Muscogee writer-director Sterlin Harjo. Once again, core cast is key, along with a patient writing and directorial style that spools out stories in dribs and drabs over time, rather than showing or telling everything up front, or all at once.

#2. Severance (Season One): Great concept, great cast, great visuals, great show! It’s science fiction on one level, sure, but like Patrick McGoohan’s great The Prisoner (one of my all-time favorite shows), it’s often what’s not shown, or what’s not explained, that creates the deepest dread, and spawns the most suspense. Season One’s ending was incredible, with a crucial reveal and a cliffhanger knit together just perfectly, just so.

#1. Atlanta (Seasons Three and Four): While Severance‘s Season One ending showed how to best set up an ensuing season, Atlanta‘s series finale showed up to best wrap up an insanely brilliant television program at the peak of its powers. Oh, I’m gonna miss Earn, Alfred, Darius and Van, for sure, but Donald Glover has been such a genius creator over the years that whatever he give us next, I known it’s going to be grand.

As noted above, I deeply dug the first two episodes of South Side‘s latest season this week, and I’m also looking forward to getting into the new Sherman’s Showcase series soon. Was there anything else out there that I need to see before 2022 runs its course? Or, probably more relevantly, was there anything else out there that I saw and forgot about, but will be reminded of as soon as I post this article, and Marcia or Katelin or John refresh my memory. There may well be edits. Hold onto your popcorn and milkshakes accordingly . . .

You want perfect television? This here’s perfect television. Get on it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Films of 2022

While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that 2022 was a normal year for the movies, it certainly seems to have been a bit closer to pre-COVID standards than 2021 was. While I still experienced the lion’s share of my 2022 film-watching sitting in my comfy chair at home, I did manage to see a few big-budget films in traditional theater settings, and even had a few buckets of popcorn that were larger than my head, oozing greasy toppings of iridescent colors not found in nature. (All of those public movie things were still ridiculously priced, too, so Hollywood hasn’t missed a beat on that front through the Anno Virum). But all of that being said, as I’ve mentioned more than once over the past couple of years of home-bound movie geeking, I do still have to say that it’s pretty great to not have had many movies ruined in 2022 by assholes on cellphones or by chatting audience members or by glitchy sound/projection or by annoyingly bright “EXIT” signs above open doors that admit the sounds of a crowded lobby into my viewing space. Little benefits of big changes, I guess.

As I wrote and posted my annual Best Films lists through the two COVID years, I’ve noted that the other weird aspect in defining each years’ most exceptional cinematic achievements is trying to figure out exactly what counts and qualifies for inclusion. Prior to 2020, I just always used the Oscar calendar rubric in judging whether to add or drop something, but that got wonky when the Academy delayed Oscar season in early 2021, and that wonkiness has been further exacerbated as films that saw festival releases in early or pre-COVID days were then delayed for months or years as their wide release calendars were rejiggered for maximum profit, if not pleasure. And then there’s the streaming factor to consider, with some major releases going straight to television screens without passing through the traditional theatrical release cycles.

I covered another thing that’s been making it somewhat difficult to re-embrace the Academy Award calendar in a post last month, called My Art Must Stew. The key point made there was as follows:

In trying to see how and where my own tastes might be aligning with 2022’s cinematic zeitgeist, I recently looked at one of the major trade magazines to see which of my favorite films and performances of the year might be trending highly with the professional cinematic chattering class. And I have to say that I was shocked that not a single one of my 52 favorite films thus far in 2022 appeared on the top contenders’ lists for any of what I count as the major Academy Award categories (Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, Score). Not one! NOT! ONE!!

Interestingly, though, the reason for that was not because I have bad taste, but rather because none of the critics’ favorite films and performances of 2022 have actually been released where regular folks like you and I can see them. They’ve screened at some select festivals or in very limited runs, for the most part, and are then being hoarded until the very end of the year for wide release, since apparently Oscar voters all have memory issues and have to see things within days or weeks or submitting their ballots. The net effect of this approach is that it makes release date much more important than it should be in critical consideration of the year’s best projects, and it also has a self-fulfilling prophecy aspect, as the critics and trade magazines and online repeaters get told over and over again what the best of the best is going to be, before it’s possible to make any decisions based on, you know, actually seeing the films in question.

I think that trend has gotten worse during COVID times, which I find unfortunate. So this year, I’m just going to just ignore the industry rules on what counts, and what doesn’t, for awards season, and declare for myself that if a new-release film became available for general consumption by regular movie-watchers after January 1, 2022, then it qualifies for inclusion on my Best Films of 2022 List. Of course, because Hollywood is hoarding so many desirable flicks until the waning days of the year, I must note that I have not yet seen several films that I expect to enjoy, but can’t yet. Here’s my running list on that front, which I will update until we get to the actual Oscars awards:

Films I Still Want/Need to See:

  1. All Quiet on the Western Front
  2. Babylon
  3. The Fabelmans
  4. Fire of Love
  5. In the Court of the Crimson King
  6. Incredible But True
  7. Living
  8. RRR
  9. She Will
  10. The Whale

And with those preambles and qualifiers and explanations sorted, here are the 50 films that I consider to be the best I’ve seen in 2022. I break them down into three presumably self-explanatory groupings, and sort the films in each category in alphabetical order, not in order of how much I liked them.

Best English-Language Feature Films:

  1. Aftersun
  2. The Banshees of Inisherin
  3. Brian and Charles
  4. Dinner in America
  5. Elvis
  6. Emily the Criminal
  7. Everything Everywhere All at Once
  8. God’s Country
  9. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
  10. Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul
  11. Hustle
  12. Kimi
  13. A Love Song
  14. Mad God
  15. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
  16. The Menu
  17. Metal Lords
  18. Mrs Harris Goes to Paris
  19. Nope
  20. The Northman
  21. Not Okay
  22. The Outfit
  23. Resurrection
  24. Something in the Dirt
  25. Sundown
  26. Tár
  27. Thirteen Lives
  28. Triangle of Sadness
  29. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
  30. Vengeance
  31. The Wonder

Best Foreign-Language Feature Films Receiving U.S. Release:

  1. Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
  2. Clara Sola
  3. Compartment No. 6
  4. Decision to Leave
  5. The Good Boss
  6. The Innocents
  7. Official Competition
  8. The Pink Cloud
  9. Saloum
  10. The Tale of King Crab
  11. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
  12. You Won’t Be Alone

Best Documentary Feature Films:

  1. Descendant
  2. Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel
  3. Good Night Oppy
  4. Moonage Daydream
  5. My Old School
  6. Sr.
  7. A Trip to Infinity

As a bonus feature, because I am a bonus feature kind of guy, I list below what I would consider to be my ideal slate of nominees in each of the Academy Awards’ most prominent (to me) categories, recognizing that virtually none of them will actually be making an acceptance speech when the envelopes are actually opened. (I don’t like the fact that Oscar allows up to ten Best Film nominees, but I’ll use that rubric here, just because). I’ll update these lists too as the season goes on, just to satisfy my obsessive desire for completeness.

NOTE: MY OSCAR PICKS MOVED TO THEIR OWN POST, HERE.

This great film probably represents the most likely overlap of my tastes and the Academy’s tastes, so I’ll be rooting for it enthusiastically come Oscar night.

My Art Must Stew

I never used to be much of a television watcher, but since the Anno Virum began, Marcia and I have generally watched something on the tube together most nights, even as our once frequent visits to movie theaters have dwindled into negligible numbers. While we’re no longer housebound as the virus has moved from pandemic to endemic state, our pleasant quarantine evening television habit has continued on mostly unabated. That being said, I can never stand to watch garbage just for the sake of killing time, so I do remain pretty selective on what I want to spend my time staring at, and I do a fair amount of reading and research on a running basis to try to find quality films for our evening entertainment.

As longtime readers here are no doubt aware, I’m also an inveterate list-maker, so when I’ve watched films I’ve enjoyed, I add them to a file I keep, so that I might refresh my memory when the end of the year arrives and I want to post my annual best films report here at the website. (Here’s last year’s list, for perspective). I’ve got 52 films released in 2022 on my pending list at the moment, from which I will cull my year-end “Best Of” report, supplementing it with whatever comes out and moves me between now and (nominally) December 31. I’ve seen some truly great films this year, a few that I might consider for my all-time favorite film list. There have been epic performances, amazing scripts, beautiful photography, incredible animation, sublime direction, stellar songs and scores, and all sorts of other cinematic highlights.

In trying to see how and where my own tastes might be aligning with 2022’s cinematic zeitgeist, I recently looked at one of the major trade magazines to see which of my favorite films and performances of the year might be trending highly with the professional cinematic chattering class. And I have to say that I was shocked that not a single one of my 52 favorite films thus far in 2022 appeared on the top contenders’ lists for any of what I count as the major Academy Award categories (Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, Score). Not one! NOT! ONE!!

Interestingly, though, the reason for that was not because I have bad taste, but rather because none of the critics’ favorite films and performances of 2022 have actually been released where regular folks like you and I can see them. They’ve screened at some select festivals or in very limited rund, for the most part, and are then being hoarded until the very end of the year for wide release, since apparently Oscar voters all have memory issues and have to see things within days or weeks or submitting their ballots. The net effect of this approach is that it makes release date much more important than it should be in critical consideration of the year’s best projects, and it also has a self-fulfilling prophecy aspect, as the critics and trade magazines and online repeaters get told over and over again what the best of the best is going to be, before it’s possible to make any decisions based on, you know, actually seeing the films in question.

(As an aside, yes, I know that Oscars don’t really matter, and that year-end lists are all artificial constructs anyway, as art is not bound by calendar-time. But in the same way that January 1 is always seen as a good day for life-changing resolutions to shape the year ahead, so is December 31 seen as a good day for looking back and reflecting. And while I pay less than no attention to the Emmys and Grammies and Tonies and such, Oscar Night still stands with the Super Bowl for me as one of the two big “All-American” television events that I make a point of watching and critiquing every year, for no good reason that I can explain).

This film industry practice got me to thinking about my own approaches to criticism in the public domain, more especially with regard to music. I have written and posted a “Best Albums of the Year” report for 30 straight years, and I usually do it around the end of November, or the beginning of December, believing as I do that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a given year. I then do an update or supplement in January if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slipped in after that. As I considered the fact this week that Oscar-bait films are all packed into the end of the year, I then started to wonder how long I actually tended to live with albums over years past before judging them to be the best things I heard in any given year.

Fortunately, since this website and my prior print archives go back that far, and then some, I was able to check the actual release dates of all 30 albums that I have judged to be the best of the best since 1992. Of those thirty, here is how their release dates fell by month over the past three decades:

  • January: Three albums
  • February: One album
  • March: Three albums
  • April: Five albums
  • May: Two albums
  • June: Six albums
  • July: Three albums
  • August: Two albums
  • September: Five albums
  • October: No albums
  • November: No albums
  • December: No albums

The earliest annual date that any of my Albums of the Year were released was January 8, when I gave the 2016 nod to David Bowie’s Blackstar. Him dying two days after releasing a masterpiece probably cemented that one before anybody else had gotten off the dime. The latest annual release date for any of my Albums of the Year was all the way back in 1994, when I awarded that personal honor to Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese, released on September 27. I know there are a ton of albums I love that were released in various Octobers, Novembers and Decembers over the past three decades, but none of them have sunk in well enough for me to declare them the best before the artificial end point of the calendar year arrives.

I guess the other thing that this exercise shows me is that I could go ahead and do my Best Albums list in October each year. Hey, maybe then I would be one of the critics influencing other critics in making their own year-end lists. At least that way they’d be picking things that regular listeners could actually hear, not things that are still in the “review copies only” pipeline. It’s a thought, though not one I will implement this year, with November already around the corner.

As it turns out, three artists who I have previously selected for a Best Album of the Year nod have just or will soon release new records: Goat, First Aid Kit, and Dry Cleaning. Their new records are all very good on first listens, and they will certainly place on my year-end list whenever I get around to doing it. But can one of them move me so deeply, so quickly, that Chocolate and Cheese gets bumped off as the latest-release entry in my pantheon of album greatness? I don’t know. It seems unlikely, but I suppose that it does remain conceptually possible. You know where to look, later this year, to find out the answer.

First Aid Kit are among three artists I have recognized as Album of the Year creators in more than one year, along with David Bowie and Björk. The new First Aid Kit record is not out yet in general release, so I suppose I will resist the urge to play Oscar Voter and declare it 2022’s best now, before you can hear it. You’re welcome.

Rocks in the Road

1. If it’s not been screamingly clear from my posts over the past couple of years, we really are very happy with our life in The VOC. We’ve got a great house, have made many great new friends, and are able to pursue to recreational things (e.g. golf, hiking, etc.) that we like to do when not otherwise productively engaged. But it’s not perfect, of course, because no place is. The one issue that has emerged for us in recent months is the flip-side of the niceness of living in a small, rural area: it can be very hard to get services in a timely fashion that are easy to access in a large metro area. We’ve seen this already with medical care, personal care (e.g. Marcia’s hairdresser), and with trying to get contractors in to do house and yard work. But two more recent events really brought this to the fore. First, we had a fender-bender auto accident, and our car has been in the shop for seven weeks (!) while awaiting parts to be shipped in from across the country. Then, a couple of weeks ago, our home air conditioner croaked just as things were getting super hot here. The service company came out quickly and identified the broken part, but there was a two-week delay in getting it shipped to us. To their credit, they gave us a portable air conditioning unit for our bedroom at no cost to us, so while the days are a bit sticky, we’ve at least been able to cool down when it’s time for bed. Finally, last Friday, the ordered part arrived . . . hooray!

The tech got to work installing but, but, oh no oh no oh no, it turned out to be the wrong part, ugh! The coolant leak was elsewhere! And, of course, the part they really did need is not available in the local market. Dammit! So we did bail to a local hotel for the super-hot weekend, and spent the time in bed watching movies, for the most part. The next part they ordered is now due here this coming Thursday. Here’s hoping it’s the one that does the trick. You don’t realize just how crucial air conditioning is to mental and physical health until you lose it, especially in a desert climate like this one. (Lest you think we’re suffering too much, a reminder that we live about 4,200 feet above sea level, so it’s not as hellish as, say, lower-elevation Phoenix or Las Vegas; when its 115°F there, it’s “only” 100°F here. Small mercies. Plus, you know, it’s a dry heat).

2. On Sunday, to beat the heat a bit, we went up to Flagstaff. It’s only a 40-minute drive, but it’s ~3000 feet higher in elevation, heavily forested, and usually about 10-15 degrees cooler during daylight hours than our home village in the summertime. We did an easy hike in the woods on the north side of the city, enjoying the strong winds through the Ponderosa pines up that way, except when the dust and dirt kicked up in exposed areas, all extremely dry after several weeks-to-months with no rain. When we got done with our walk, we headed back to downtown Flagstaff to get lunch. As we got out of the car, we looked back in the direction we had come from and saw this . . .

Yikes! A quick visit to the Arizona wildfire map site revealed this one had started just a couple of miles north of where we were just around the time that we had started hiking. Glad our chosen trail did not go a bit further than we did! This blaze has been dubbed The Pipeline Fire, and as I type, it has already consumed 21,000 acres. As a perhaps small blessing, it has run up against the perimeter of The Tunnel Fire, which burned about 19,000 acres a month or so back, and had already consumed much of this fuel that could have allowed this one to run further. (Update: Pipeline is now spreading around the north boundary of Tunnel). Here’s hoping our monsoon starts soon. We need it.

3. We finished watching the Danny Boyle mini-series Pistol (which tells the story of the Sex Pistols) this weekend, and enjoyed it. Here’s the trailer:

I’d been iffy on whether I wanted to watch it or not, largely because I’m very familiar with the Pistols’ story, I knew that John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) was so opposed to its creation and release, and because the critics had been tepid in their response to it. But testimony from some trusted sources led me to give it a go, and I am glad I did. When it was done, I got to thinking about why the critical response to it was so bland. I think it may be because there’s often an immediate knee-jerk reaction to film bios of people who worked within living memory, as it’s impossible to cast actors who look and act exactly like the way we imagine and remember the characters they play (well, except for The Greatest, where Muhammad Ali played Muhammad Ali), and so the first response (which usually comes from the critics who see it before the regular folks) is often negative for reasons of short-term cognitive dissonance. But once your mind adjusts to seeing the actors as the characters, it all goes down easier. And that’s even more the case in a five-hour-ish mini-series like this, as opposed to the usual two-hour-ish theater film. But the critics don’t re-write their reviews at that point, so their initial bile ends up as the story of record.

I also think the negative reactions can be fueled by the fact that the first regular people who watch things like this are likely to be the biggest fans of the subject, who know a lot about the subject, and so are acutely aware of when the film-makers have had to take creative license to tell an actual story with an actual plot arc, when reality is never as linear and denouement-driven as a movie. So, yeah, I knew there were decisions and things that Boyle and his team had to do to make Pistol a piece of informative entertainment and to keep the story going, and if I was expecting a documentary, then that could lead me to be hostile to his presentation. But it wasn’t marketed that way, and it was told from an unusual perspective (focusing much attention on guitarist Steve Jones and future Pretender Chrissie Hynde, among others, rather than just obsessing about the usual Sid and John and Nancy and Malcolm narratives), and so I was okay when the needs of an entertaining story trumped the needs of strict historical and temporal accuracy.

I remember when the Bohemian Rhapsody film came out some years back and the initial critical response was so savage that, as excited as I’d been to see the film, I found myself waiting until it came out on streaming services to watch it. And then I quite liked it. And in the end, Rami Malek won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury. But it took time for it to brew, and if the initial critical response had been the only response, a good-enough film would have been missed and forgotten. I think the Rocketman film about Elton John dodged this a bit by playing more as a fantasia based on a real person (see also All That Jazz) than as a linear biopic; it went way wild on the story’s chronology, but it worked as a great bit of entertainment, helped by the fact that Taron Egerton was that rare case where the actor was somewhat uncanny in his resemblance to and ability to emote his subject.

4. Among the movies we watched during our little hotel air conditioning vacation were three recent-ish “little movies” that were all quite different, but all quite good. I commend them all to you (especially the first one) if you’re looking for something fresh outside of the summer blockbuster milieu:

5. And as a closing note: Is it just me, or has Youtube gotten really obnoxious of late with the embedded ads?

One Way Or Another

1. I posted a few weeks back about my annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament pool, which I usually lose in embarrassing fashion, in large part because I over-think things, and make insider-knowledge, micro-aggressive picks that have little to no basis in the macro reality of the sport and its players. This year, though, I actually won my little group’s bracket pool (!), solely because I was the only person to pick Kansas to win the national championship. For perspective, in most standard pick ’em pools, the maximum number of points possible is 224 (32 points per round, over seven rounds). I won my group with but 95 points (42% of the possible best), probably demonstrating less my adeptness at picking outcomes than the general weirdness of this year’s tournament. Had North Carolina held on to defeat Kansas in the championship game, my sister would have won our group. I duly chastised her for picking the detested North Carolina Shitheels, since we’re from a long and devoted North Carolina State Wolfpack family (our grandfather, our father, and her husband were/are alumni there). Snarking ensued. It would have looked like this, had we been together to do it in person:

2. I also recently posted my picks for this year’s Academy Awards, as I also do on a (nearly) annual basis. I didn’t expect CODA to win Best Picture, but I was happy that it did. It is a glorious, wonderful film. There might have been tears involved when I watched it. But I am sure it was just allergies, ahem. I was also happy to see Jane Campion finally win an Oscar for directing The Power of the Dog. She’s great. Even before the now-infamous awards show slap, I was actively opposed to seeing Will Smith win the Best Actor award for King Richard, just as I was actively opposed to his nomination for playing one my deepest personal heroes in Ali. I don’t dislike Will Smith, particularly, but I also can’t get myself interested in the biographical roles that he plays. I was also “meh” on Jessica Chastain winning Best Actress for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, though I expected it. The role seemed more like a triumph of hair styling and make-up design than it did a triumph of acting. That said, I do recognize that I’m probably among a relatively small number of diligent contemporary film buffs who was also regularly exposed to the real Bakkers and PTL Club, having been raised in a deeply devout, television-watching family. Film elite voters are always impressed when film elite actors play mildly-laughable country cracker types, but as a one-time mildly-laughable country cracker myself, I tend to find that urban sophisticate “Oh, these rural folks are so quaint and charming and funny and simple and wise, despite themselves” vibe to be often condescending and offensive. Oh well. At least they didn’t give Lady Gaga an acting Oscar. That really would have rubbed me the wrong way, had they done that.

3. Still on the Oscars, I was utterly appalled by the nominees and the winners of the Best Song and Best Score Awards, given that the masterfully musical Annette by Sparks and Leos Carax was completely ignored on the award-giving front. There’s no question in my mind that the finest song to appear in a film in 2021 was “So May We Start,” from Annette, which actually featured in the film, meaningfully, and also featured cast members singing, unlike most of the utterly dreadful nominated songs, which were mainly just shitty fluff tacked on to soundtrack the credits, opening or closing. (The nominated Van Morrison song from Belfast was an exception to that rule, but I loathe Van Morrison with a passion, so that point was somewhat moot in my own mind). Annette‘s score was also sublime, as opposed to the bloat-by-numbers bullshit that the tiresome Hans Zimmer loaded up upon the already intolerable and soul-lacking Dune, which won the Oscar. Bleh.

4. I generally feel just as foul when it comes to the Grammy Awards, where one would think that the voters would actually know and understand music, since that’s what the awards are for, for God’s sake, unlike the Oscars, where the music is a minor side-light. But their choices, too, are often inexplicably awful, in years where there is inexplicably great, even popular, music being completely ignored. That said, I was mildly surprised and pleased that Silk Sonic won the Song of the Year and Record of the Year Grammy awards last week for “Leave the Door Open,” from the group’s debut album, which featured on my Best Albums of 2021 list. It’s a funny and sweet piece of post-Philly Soul, organic and “real” in ways that so many popular recent examples of assembly-line pop-by-numbers can never begin to replicate. If you don’t know it, it’s worth a quick spin, as is the rest of the album that spawned it:

5. The 1950 American Census data was released on April 1 this year for free search and discovery. You can dig into it here. I found both of my parents (then children) in the data, among other family members. Here’s my Dad’s family (the only Smiths on the page), and here’s my Mom (her surname was Waters). Nothing show-stopping in either of those reports, but still interesting to see what their respective neighborhoods looked like at the time, and how my grandparents described their work and educational experiences.

What Should Be Done

1. Marcia and I have been getting our healthcare insurance coverage for the past 18 months via the COBRA program, which allowed us to receive benefits as part of the last healthcare policy group she’d been a member of at the point when she retired from full-time work. But as our eligibility for that program came to its end, we visited the Federal Healthcare Website to see what our options were for the year(s) to come. We found a very good plan at a very reasonable price with a very nice Federal tax subsidy associated with it, and enrolled in said program accordingly this week. Thank you, President Obama, for that. We appreciate you, always. And we miss you!

2. Bauhaus were a tremendously influential and much appreciated band for me through most of the 1980s, and their successor bands (Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail, and solo projects by members Daniel Ash, David J, and Peter Murphy) kept me rolling in good music for years-to-decades after their original collective creative run petered out. I had read that the original quartet were on tour again this year, but was surprised when they issued a new single (the first new music they’ve released in 14 years) a couple of weeks ago, called “Drink The New Wine:”

The music media have been much impressed by the song’s origins, created via the surrealists’ game trope “exquisite corpse,” in which each of the group’s four members recorded their segments of the song independently, without having heard the other three members’ contributions. The results are shockingly coherent, but, then, that’s the point of the game, in that brilliant collaborative newness may (and in this case, does) emerge from the chaotic creative process behind the work.

But I’ve not seen (m)any members of the critical community recognizing that this is not the first time that Bauhaus have hoed this row, with one of the best songs from one of their best albums (The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982) being titled “Exquisite Corpse,” and being created under the same rubric. Here’s how that one sounded; it’s a personal fave:

Note well that the title of the new song makes it something of a sequel to the title of the earlier song, as they evoke the original surrealist quote penned by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy: “Le cadaver exquisite boar le vin nouveau,” which translates in English to “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.” Bauhaus (the group) also deployed this creative technique on a fairly rare b-side, where they titled the track with the band members’ names and the order in which said members created their contributions to the cut in question:

Always happy when artists I admire and respect return from long hiatuses with works that are challenging, yet anchored in their core creative values. Here’s hoping that Messrs Ash, J, Haskins and Murphy continue to make new music under their Bauhaus imprimatur. It’s a good one. I miss it.

3. We finished watching the first season of Our Flag Means Death last night. I’m all in behind the brilliant Taika Waititi, and will pretty much happily watch anything and everything that he does (except for his Marvel Universe Movies, because I boycott superhero and Marvel Universe Movies as a point of principle, as I think them a tired and sore blight on our modern culture) (but I don’t mind Taika making them, if they fund his original work), but even with that expectation for excellence, this series went in ways and places that I’d not imagined it going, and it was all fantastic. Here’s the trailer, as a tease, and I most emphatically recommend it to you:

I’ve read a lot of reviews and analysis of the series over the past few weeks, but few writers seem to have picked up on something that I knew going in, as a fan of the sorts of “tales of human suffering” books that tell stories like this one: lead character Stede Bonnett (played by Rhys Darby) was a real, historical character, who did indeed serve with the legendary Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) for a period of time. Because my brain is somewhat broken, I found myself playing this musical version of the Blackbeard story on my internal mental jukebox for hours on end, the ear-worm factor in full, florid display:

4. I’ve written at length here over the past 18 months or so about the amazing natural beauty of our home region in Northern Arizona, and its exceptional geological history. I’ve written less often about the human history of the region, but it’s fairly incredible in its own ways. One of the cooler factors about rambling about this part of the country is finding petroglyph sites, where ancient humans left their marks by carving both decorative and utilitarian works of art in the region’s red rocks, often darkened black by microbial growth and aged lichens. I paid a second visit to one of the less known, but visually spectacular, petroglyph sites in our area this week, deeply enjoying these most cool art works, all by my lonesome:

When we’ve read or heard talks about the ancient cultures of our region (most notably the Sinagua People, who left the area en masse around 1400 AD), the writers or park docents do tend to focus heavily on the practical aspects of the places where the Sinagua settlements were developed, but I believe deeply that our ancestors were just as attuned to aesthetic “location, location, location” concerns in their own ways as we are in ours. Yeah, you needed safety and food and shelter and water back then when you decided to pitch camp or develop a settlement, sure, but I’d bet good money that the folks who carved these figures, and others in the area, also sat down at the end of the day, looked out before them, and said “Dang, this sure is a nice spot!” Here’s the view of this site, just before arriving at the rock carvings. Nice spot? Yeah, it is. Definitely.